Middle Tennessee State University student leaves school to help in Ukraine

The young man made the trip on his own and now handles bodies
Payton Robinson
Posted at 6:46 AM, May 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-05 21:05:28-04

LEBANON, Tenn. (WTVF) — Have you ever felt so strongly about something that nothing would stop you?

This is the incredible story of Peyton Robinson.

The Middle Tennessee State University student left school, booked a flight and went to Ukraine.

He had no plan, no contacts, no military training, just his convictions to make a difference.

Robinson is an MTSU sophomore, but, for now, his studies are on hold.

He comes from a close-knit family in Lebanon, Tennessee and he's known for always lending a hand.

"This is his personality. That is the type of person he is, he loves helping people," said his father Andrew Robinson.

Robinson had watched with great concern the devastating war in Ukraine. He couldn't shake what he saw happening — disturbed by the Russian invasion. So, he decided he needed to take a stand.

robinson facetime
Peyton Robinson speaks with his father Andrew Robinson and NC5 Reporter Nick Beres over FaceTime from Ukraine.

This leads us to a FaceTime conversation with Robinson by candlelight from Ukraine.

"I said there is something I can do. I can get on a plane. I can leave America and I can go over and do something," said Robinson.

In early April, he told friends and family he was going and bought a plane ticket to Hungary, traveling there alone.

"When you landed in Budapest, there was no one there to meet you, so you just said which way to Ukraine," asked reporter Nick Beres.

"I was going to go and just cross the border," said Robinson.

He then took buses and a train all the way to Ukraine's capital Kyiv, again, just by himself.

"I'm going to be on my own, no one here to help me in a foreign country with no help," Robinson recalled.

But once there, he met up with Ukrainians who welcomed the American who told them he just wanted to help.

"Whenever they met me they knew I didn't speak any Ukrainian. They talked to everyone for me and even brought me to a Ukrainian safe house," said Robinson.

Eventually, he joined other volunteers in an evacuated apartment in the nearby city of Irpin. A few of them did speak English.

"I talked to the volunteers and said, 'I want to help. I am an American volunteer. I flew halfway around the world. I'm here to help.' And they said, 'OK, How do you feel about excavating corpses?' and I said, 'I'd be honored to,'" said Robinson.

A harsh reality of this war is the fate of the bodies of those who have died. In the chaos of the fighting, the casualties have been buried in mass graves.

"What we do is dig up corpses and police identify them for war crimes and then we send them to the morgue to be identified for their families," Robinson said.

And then, a proper burial.

Robinson and his crew must navigate through the destruction looking for those mass graves.

"We'll be walking down the street and just air raids will be happening and there's the missile strikes coming in," he said. "We get air raids constantly throughout the day."

Robinson works with a team that has filled dozens of body bags sending them to the morgue. It's something he does each day. Then they all head back at nightfall.

"There is a bunch of us. We stay in this house and the houses around us. First had no electricity or water. We just got water running last week," he said.

With no power things get dark fast, so exhausted they all sleep. The next day, they get up and do it all again.

"Every morning we just come and drink coffee. I don't understand anything they are saying of course. We hang out and eat together. We just were eating borscht," said Robinson.

Here he turns his cell phone around to show his Ukrainian housemates.

"Say hi to America. Hello," Robinson tells them. "They are asking... they want to see my dad. Hello."

This is the first time Robinson's father Andrew has seen his son since he arrived in Ukraine. Up until now, it's just been phone conversations or texts.

Andrew knows the dangers his son faces in the war-torn country. He didn't want him to go, but Robinson told him he'd return.

"I promised my family that I will come back as soon as the war was over. So want to be back as soon as possible," Robinson said.

But for now, with no end to the war in sight, Robinson has canceled his return flight home.

His father knows he'll see it through to the end.

"Keep doing what you are doing. We love you for it and glad to see you come back," Andrew told his son.

"Love you, dad," Robinson responded.

NewsChannel 5 plans to keep in touch with Robinson and will continue to provide updates on his status in Ukraine.